Obama's Trip to Southeast Asia: Alone on Travels

Obama’s trip across Southeast Asia shows us to what extent China and the U.S. are competing for the region. Yet states such as Malaysia or the Philippines do not want to have to decide between the two powers; China’s economic power is too great and the U.S. is too unpredictable. The dwarves prefer to swing between the two.

One does not need to be a dwarf to feel unease in a kingdom dominated by two giants. What should be done when both superpowers are fighting? Keep one’s ground or stay out of it? It gets even more difficult when the dwarf gets embroiled with the giant and then does not know whether to hide behind the other giant. Things aren’t any easier at the head of a Southeast Asian country.

China and the U.S. are rivals over there, as they both want to influence this economically dynamic region. Once again, the race between the two superpowers is of current appeal as the U.S. president travels to the south, after talks which took place in Japan and South Korea. He will visit Malaysia and the Philippines. The question that will be addressed is how smaller Asian states will face the power of China.

The rivalry between the two giants forces many ASEAN countries to sign a balancing act. Only the Philippines appears to show its colors. Manila is seeking military support from its former American colonial power because it feels patronized during talks with China over strategic islands. Most states in the region, however, prefer to swing back and forth. They do not want to provoke or disappoint either superpower, as they also hope to be able to get along with both of them.

The States in the Region Do Not Want To Irritate the US or China

For instance, Malaysia wants to use Obama’s visit to strengthen its ties with America, but Kuala Lumpur needs to make sure it does not antagonize Beijing any more. The mysterious disappearance of MH 370 has triggered further tensions. What most countries have recognized also applies to Malaysians: They cannot afford to have China as an enemy. Yet these countries fear the swift rise of their big neighbor.

The Philippines has already felt some damage. As confrontations with Beijing were taking place at sea, Chinese importers suddenly decided not to buy bananas from the Philippines anymore. With its market force, China put the squeeze on the Philippines, and all those fighting for territorial seas, island groups or even uninhabited reefs in the South China Sea observed this meticulously.

Since Beijing has so far made territorial claims without compromise and has acted ruthlessly at sea, fear appears to be growing. But this does not mean that these countries would spontaneously run into the arms of the Americans. According to these Southeast Asian countries, China’s increase in power is unstoppable, and they know that they will have to live with it in the future. They rely too heavily on China’s power in order to retract from it.

In Southeast Asia, one also sees the economic importance, not just the danger. Economic integration is becoming more entrenched; when China is doing well, its neighbors equally benefit. In addition, the majority of Southeast Asian governments are not convinced that America will necessarily swing in favor of Asia. They saw how Washington drew a red line in Syria, but did not take any action. In Ukraine, they observe how the West and Putin interact. In October, Obama declined to take part in the APEC summit in Bali in order to solve domestic issues. For Asians, this was a sign of weakness. Where there are signs of Asian fears of Chinese hegemonic aspirations, there is also a certain amount of skepticism, something the Americans need to act upon in the face of Beijing’s ever growing strength.

Thus, the states continue to swing in this manner, as they do not want to spoil things for themselves with either giant. This split demands a lot of effort, but they have not regretted it so far.

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